Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reflections on Yom Ha-shoah and Yom Ha-atzmaut

This year I was privileged to be on the committee that arranged the purchase and erection of a brass plaque memorializing the Holocaust on the wall in the lobby of my synagogue, Kingsway Jewish Center. We held a solemn ceremony on Sunday 27 Nisan to dedicate the plaque. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors filed into the sanctuary with lighted yahrzeit candles and placed them on a table in the front, and a child survivor (just about the only survivors still with us were children at the time) who is now a prominent educator at Ramaz spoke to us. The event was uplifting in a bittersweet way but for one incident that marred it. At the collation following the ceremony, our Congressman Anthony Wiener came uninvited and addressed us, as he addresses many similar gatherings where he is invited. As some might know, the Congressman, a Jew, is engaged to be married to a young Muslim woman. Knowing that this would generate negativity, we decided not to invite him but he showed up anyway and was allowed to address us. Instead of showing an elected official the respect to which his position entitles him, one congregant who shall go nameless confronted him on his personal life and Congressman Wiener took it personally and reacted accordingly, challenging the congregant to come up close and "say it to my face," when in fact he did say it to his face, maybe twenty feet away in front of a roomful of people. In the end Mr. Wiener's security people removed him for his own safety before he completed his address. There was plenty of blame to go around for this fiasco. The congregant who initiated the confrontation should have known better. Intermarriage is unfortunately a makkat medina, a nationwide epidemic. About half of all Jewish marriages in the United States are to non-Jews. It has long been an unwritten rule in American politics that a candidate's personal life is off limits. The congregant was and is at liberty to vote against Mr. Wiener, to persuade others to vote against him, and even to run against him should he seek reelection this fall. As for Mr. Wiener, he should have known that there might be a negative reaction at an Orthodox congregation owing to his personal circumstance and stayed away from a gathering to which he was not invited. Having made an appearance and experienced precisely the sort of negativity we feared, he acted like a twelve-year-old. One would think that an experienced politician would have a thicker skin. Instead of issuing what reasonable men might regard as a challenge to fight, look the fellow in the eye and tell him that his choice of a mate is "none of your business." So an inspiring Yom Ha-shoah gathering ended in embarrassment to our congregation and, arguably, hillul Hashem.

That evening I attended the Yom Ha-shoah commemoration at my alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush, as I do every year. We heard from Deborah Steiner-Van Rooyen, author of Dove on a Barbed Wire, about her search for and discovery of her cousin and lost family. And the following Monday evening I attended the Yom Ha'atzma'ut celebration at Yeshivah of Flatbush. These gatherings never lost their power to touch my heart and soul, but I'm noticing an unsettling phenomenon as the years go by. These gatherings used to be held in the high school auditorium, which was packed to the rafters. Standing room only. They had to open up the Bet Midrash across the hall and set up a sound system to accommodate the overflow. Now there are plenty of empty seats in the high school auditorium on Yom Ha-shoah, while the Yom Ha-atzma'ut celebration is held in the much smaller Bet Midrash in the elementary school building, and still there are empty seats. It seems to confirm what recent studies purportedly show, that young Jewish people today feel unconnected to Israel and Judaism. Not disconnected, not critical, but unconnected. They just don't care. Israel has no significance for them, good or bad. Judaism is something they can take or leave, and many are leaving. Perhaps this is just a function of Brooklyn becoming thoroughly ferkhnyocked and the khnyocks both here and in Israel being divorced from anything having to do with the state, its symbols (you seldom see the blue-and-white flag in haredi neighborhoods) and its commemmorations. As we read in the Passover Haggada, ilu haya sham, lo haya nig'al. They were there, they witnessed what we witnessed, but they are not affected by it, one way or the other. But my peregrinations on the planet convince me otherwise. As a teacher in New York City's public schools, I remember when every high school in a Jewish area offered Hebrew, culminating in a Regents examination that satisfied the foreign language requirement. Jewish students in the public high schools may not have been particularly religiously observant (though prior to the 1960s many were) but they felt a cultural connection to the Jewish people and wanted to learn its language. No more. Hebrew in the public schools is now a rarity, and the Regents exams are not posted online as other exams are, so that the questions can be reused. The Histadrut Ivrith of America was once a vibrant organization promoting Hebrew culture through the newspaper Hadoar and the monthly magazine Lamishpaha, where I had several items published. Early this decade both publications folded and the Histadrut Ivrith itself ceased to exist. The people who benefited from it - mostly students and growing families on budgets - lacked the financial resources to keep it afloat and the people with the money couldn't care less. The Birnbaum Siddur and Mahzorim, edited to conform to modern Hebrew grammar and with mistakes in "traditional" siddurim corrected, is difficult if not impossible to obtain, and its publisher, Hebrew Publishing Company, seems to have disappeared.
I wish I could end on a more cheerful note, but I just don't see where this is going to end in anything but disaster for Jewish life in America.

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Anonymous Deborah van Rooyen said...


Thank you for your blog about Congressman Wiener. I am the author who wrote DOVE ON A BARBED WIRE who spoke at the Flatbush Yeshiva on Yom HaShoah. As I was next in line to follow Congressman Wiener on stage, my knees turned to jelly as I listened to the Congressman's seamless speech. My talk was much less formal and certainly much less practiced. Nonetheless, had I known Wiener was engaged to a Muslim woman, I might have felt more kindly towards him (personally), as his rhetoric (politically) was a tad right-wing for my leanings. btw:I was also accompanied to Yeshiva Flatbush (a sort of foreign country experience) by the man in my life, who just so happens to be an outsider (so-to-speak), but whose comments to the Rabbi left an impression: "Open Yom HaShoah to the outside world," he suggested gently, "It's not only Jews that should never forget to remember." My non-Jewish other half was moved by the entire evening's events. And why not? He is as responsible for what happens in the world as is anyone else.

Mon Apr 26, 11:47:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Neandershort said...

Wiener a tad to the right for you? You ain't seen nothing yet!

Wed Apr 28, 04:22:00 PM EDT  

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